Thursday, August 14, 2008

Addition of Lorenzo Neal could have a ripple affect upon Ravens' roster

The first player I looked for when I arrived at McDaniel College yesterday was Lorenzo Neal. No surprise there because other than newly acquired tight end Keith Heinrich, Neal was also the newest bird to join the nest.

More than anything else I was curious to see if the four-time Pro Bowler was in shape. Since there was next to no buzz about him within league circles, I was concerned that just maybe in his mind he was heading down the happy trail towards retirement and that his conditioning wouldn't be NFL-ready.

The very first play I witnessed was a little swing pass to the right that Neal caught in stride and then scuttled down the sideline. I was pleasantly surprised. Neal looks cut, strong and has fresh legs. And not to mention a healthy chip on his shoulder that should make Willis McGahee smile and AFC North linebackers fret.

"You get angry when you've been at the top of your game, when you're rated the No. 1 fullback and then free agency comes and I kind of felt like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Because of my age, I got left out of the game.

"Teams discriminate against you because of your age. That was the toughest part of sitting out, knowing you're still in great shape, knowing you can still run, knowing you're still ready to compete. Those people out there that doubted me, I'm back and I'm coming.”

The move to get Neal could have a rippling affect on the team’s final 53 man roster. From my corner I think the acquisition impacts Le’Ron McClain, Cory Ross, Alex Haynes and Allen Patrick.

McClain has worked extremely hard during camp and he’s been every bit as effective as a tailback in a single back set at Ross, Haynes or Patrick. So what does that mean?

I think it means a few things…

1. McClain could be featured in a jumbo backfield that includes Lorenzo Neal in short yardage and goal line situations;
2. Haynes might gain an edge on Allen Patrick because his size suggests that he could couple as a back up running back and back up fullback;
3. It could signal the end of Cory Ross as a Raven. Ross has marginal return skills and is nowhere near as accomplished in that department as Yamon Figurs, Ray Rice or even Tom Zbikowski for that matter.

Patrick has been trucked regularly by linebackers during camp and he doesn’t have the size to play fullback nor NFL speed to be a featured back. If he makes the team it will be because he’s a standout on special teams. So far we haven’t seen that. Patrick is more likely to land on the practice squad.

While we are talking McClains, Jameel McClain had a rough day at camp on Wednesday. During one on one drills intended to test cover skills, he was torched regularly. During the drills it was entertaining to listen to the good natured verbal sparring between linebackers coach Greg Mattison and quarterbacks coach Hue Jackson. The coaches determined down and distance and Jackson called the plays. The quarterbacks were challenged to move the sticks on third down by completing passes to either a tight end or a running back while Mattison’s unit was tasked with stopping them. On more than one occasion Mattison chanted, “Offense now punting the ball…punting the ball!”

Kyle Boller was the best of the three quarterbacks on Wednesday. He was sharp throughout most of the practice and did not throw an interception. He was the author of the morning’s best throw, a deep post corner from 40 yards out to Justin Harper over Ronnie Prude in the left corner of the end zone. Harper shook off two earlier drops from Troy Smith, one on a deep streak down the right sidelined which was perfectly placed by Smith. The other drop was on a quick slant from the left slot.

Boller also hit the Ravens other big rookie receiver Marcus Smith on an out route at the back of the end zone for a 15 yard scoring strike. Ronnie Prude despite tight coverage was again the victim. On the very next play, Boller delivered a bullet for a 15 yard score to Derrick Mason who was covered by Corey Ivy. Prior to the snap, Bart Scott was lined up on Marcus Smith. Offensive players standing by encouraged Boller to go after Scott. Scott then asked Troy Smith why he didn’t believe he could cover Smith to which Smith replied, “I believe in you before I believe in Prude.”

“Prude sucks”, added Derrick Mason.

All of the banter was good natured.

Prude later intercepted a pass from Smith intended for Mark Clayton. Prude did not bite on the double move. Smith seemed to release the ball early. Clayton had yet to turn and look for the ball and was targeting the back of the end zone. Prude picked the ball off around the goal line.

OTHER NOTABLES AND QUOTABLES: Ray Rice had the catch of the day – a one-handed catch just beyond Brendon Ayanbadejo about 20 yards down field…Adam Terry was in a t-shirt and shorts practicing his drops from the right tackle position. He appeared to move with no noticeable discomfort…Sam Koch practiced a reverse end over end punt mastered by the Titans’ Craig Hentrich. From 40 yards out the punt landed on the one and bounced backwards into the waiting arms of Dawan Landry at the 2…Tavares Gooden was running alone in a sweatshirt on the adjacent field…LB Terrence Melton had a heavily bandaged right wrist…Antwan Barnes’ left arm was equipped with a flexible brace…Frank Walker “The Talker” continues to talk the talk but despite coaches reports to the contrary, he has shown this observer very little. Walker is said to be a solid special teams player. The investment in Walker and Ayanbadejo will almost certainly spell the end for Gary Stills as a Raven.

David Pittman was a bystander again. He’s played well when he practices. He just doesn’t do enough of it. Rex Ryan is said to be pleased with the maturation of Pittman. He could be a late bloomer. Don’t be surprised to see the team place him on IR or PUP and keep Martin. Unless he rallies in a big way, Ronnie Prude looks like the odd man out. That said if Frank Walker didn’t get a $1.2 million signing bonus and simply agreed to the veteran minimum, he might be the odd man out…New TE Keith Heinrich is 29 years old and has spent time with the Browns and Bucs in his 6 seasons. He has 9 career catches for 65 yards and 2 TDs...ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio was on hand to interview Kyle Boller.